Profit over equality? Another outsourced contract fails

Atos, the company awarded work capability assessments has terminated its contract early and agreed financial settlement with the DWP. If you were on benefits due to long-term illness, you had to have your back to work assessment by this company.

For Deaf people, Atos created additional barriers to these work assessments, as they did for disabled people.

Before you could even get an assessment you had to phone a number to book an appointment. There were no alternative means of communication. Not even through a dusty old textphone.

It’s medical assessors, not trained doctors, were known for testing Deafness by asking people to turn around and shouting at them to see if they were Deaf.

Interpreters used for these appointments were rarely qualified or registered.

An outsourcing nightmare bites the dust. If only the same would happen with the MoJ contract for interpreting.

If only government contracts had stipulated within them the needs for equality over profit.

If only contracts would be monitored to check that what big companies say they will do, actually happens.

If only.

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Access to Government

A Deaf person may need to contact the government for any number of reasons depending on their circumstances. Those applying for the new Personal Independence Payment benefit fill in a written form and must state a telephone number to be called on to arrange a medical assessment. The company sourced to run these applications, ATOS, is well known for its incapabilities and the inherent discrimination they are causing via their application processes. Another outsourcing blip. At the medical assessments the assessors, who are not doctors, have a list of questions. If a person has stated they are Deaf they are asked to face the wall whilst the assessor shouts at them to prove they are Deaf. Not only is this ridiculous it is embarrassing, discriminatory and surely above all this task proves nothing.

Dealing with job centres are bad enough if you can hear. There are often numerous phone numbers, different departments deal with different tasks and finding the right one is a stressful experience. Often those with queries are told to use the phone. Not helpful for anyone who is Deaf. On top of this, the contract for interpreting services is another outsourcing nightmare with unregistered signers being used to save money. A false economy when it does not resolve the communication barrier and if it leaves a Deaf person more likely to be out of work, it just costs the state more money. Some of the employment schemes the government funds refuse to book interpreters and the staff that work in these private companies often have never met a Deaf person. The ones run specifically for Deaf people are not necessarily any better with evidence of unregistered users of sign language being used for calls to companies and job interviews. Not empowering for the Deaf person and much less likely to get them the best job they can get.

Access to work, for those who do not know, is a funding scheme in the UK designed to help Deaf and disabled people into work and enable them to stay there should be the highlight of the UK system for Deaf people. Not all countries have funding for interpreters at work. However, despite this being the UK government’s largest underspent budget, it can be incredibly hard and stressful for a Deaf person to even make a claim, let alone get interpreters for their agreed rate, speak to their advisor, fill out the claim forms or if necessary complain or appeal a decision.

There are some well-known cases of fraud in the Deaf community that are coming to court and several agencies or organisations have been investigated. The knock on effect being tighter rules on claims and some rather strange recommendations that are now suggested by Access to Work advisors. It is clear neither Deaf people nor interpreters were consulted on whether these would work. For example, a Deaf person awarded with over 30 hours of interpreting per week is now being asked to employ an interpreter rather than use freelance interpreters, who are generally cheaper than agency staff. This may work for some, for others it brings the added problems of HR and administration as well as the 15% on costs associated with providing someone with employment in paying their pension contributions, training, registration and insurance. What happens too if the employed interpreter goes on long-term sick, maternity or paternity leave? This passes the burden of responsibility or costs unfairly to the employer or sometimes directly to the Deaf person. Interpreters are familiar with attending job interviews where it is clear the Deaf person will not get employed as no matter whether the Deaf person is the best candidate for the job or how much information is given about Access to Work the employer sees costs or responsibility as an extra hurdle and the job is from that moment lost.

It seems that the more the guidelines change to benefit those running the government funded scheme, the more discrimination occurs for Deaf people. An irony as the scheme is designed to alleviate it.

There are national guidelines in existence but the local business centres tend to create their own. It is unknown as to whether this is due to staff turnover, ignorance or a lack of internal communications. For years reports have surfaced of Deaf staff in the same team, with similar jobs, working similar hours, with the same Access to Work adviser who can all be awarded vastly different rates for interpreters. This can often leave one with the best Registered Interpreters and excellent access to their working environment and others in the team having to use ‘signers’ who are not yet even fluent.

Some Deaf people are told to use government recommended agencies. These are usually those having won government contracts or status as a preferred supplier. In the usual vein when it comes to outsourcing, this equates to a cheaper surface cost for this government department, less quality for everyone else. ‘Surface cost’ as the real cost is often not cheaper than using an interpreter, the personnel provided can not do the job at hand and the Deaf person does not get the access they were supposed to get resulting in a waste of funding.

None of this blogpost will be new to any Deaf person or interpreter in the UK. What it highlights is how blanket government policy in the UK can be counter-productive. The UK could be the envy of the world when it comes to access to government services for Deaf people but we seem to have slipped back in time. Internationally Deaf people are getting more access, here it seems to go backwards. In a recent challenge a spokesperson from Access to Work said no Deaf people had ever complained. It could be because Deaf people do not complain as they do not want to lose the claim they have fought hard to get. The other obvious reason is because there is no access to the complaints system.

Five simple recommendations for government departments:

1) Ensure contractors are not going to discriminate against those using your services.

2) Only advocate the use of Registered Interpreters to save money.

3) Properly consult with Deaf and interpreter organisations about how to improve efficiency as well as saving on costs. ASLI have provided information, attended meetings and have had government contacts for years. The BDA is currently asking for evidence. Avoid asking agencies or those likely to make a profit from funding as this will result in skewed information.

4) Improve internal communications so that local departments are aware of national guidelines.

5) Ensure your complaints procedures are accessible for Deaf people.

If you have any other recommendations or information about good practice from your country or field of work please add them to the comments section below.